A distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack is kind of like a traffic jam
on a website
What is a DDoS attack and what does it mean for your website? Instead of jumping deep into technical details, let’s start with a real-world analogy that makes it really easy to visualize what a DDoS attack is…
Imagine, for a moment, that it’s a Sunday afternoon and
you’re driving down the highway with your family, headed to your favorite
picnic spot. You’re cruising down the highway at 70 miles an hour – it won’t be
long before you’re at the park enjoying a lovely autumn day!
…That is, until you go around a curve and see this in front
It’s a traffic jam — going as far as the eye can see!
You check your GPS traffic report, only to see that the jam
extends for miles and there’s no way around it. There’s no way you’ll make it
to the park in time for your picnic.
That’s basically what a distributed denial of service (DDoS)
attack is – lots of users (in this case, cars) that are jamming up a system
(the highway) to deny you from accessing a service (the park).
Usually when we talk about DDoS attacks, the resource being
denied is a website and the “traffic jam” was maliciously caused by a hacker. But
the concept is the same as a traffic jam on the highway. Let’s dive into what
DDoS means, the types of DDoS attacks, and methods of DDoS prevention.
Let’s hash it out.
What is a DDoS Attack? A Simple Definition
Since we’re all about making technical topics simple, let’s start with a basic answer to the question: What does DDoS mean (a.k.a. “What is a distributed denial of service attack”)?
As mentioned above, a DDoS attack is a bit like a traffic jam on a website (but it’s intentionally caused by a hacker).
Here’s a simple definition for the meaning of DDoS:
A DDoS (distributed-denial-of-service) attack is when a hacker makes a website or other service inaccessible by flooding it with requests from many different devices.
If you’ve also heard the term
“DoS attack,” don’t let that confuse you. A DDoS attack is just a specific type
of DoS (denial-of-service) attack — one that uses multiple computers/devices to
How Does a DDoS Attack Work? (Hint: It Involves Zombies!)
Just like a traffic jam floods a highway with more cars than
it can handle, a DDoS attack floods a website with more requests (i.e.
visitors) than the web server or other related systems can handle.
Many hackers use botnets (a.k.a. zombie computers) to execute
DDoS attacks. A botnet is a way for a single person (hacker) to control
thousands of devices at once.
Here’s how a botnet works to execute a DDoS attack:
Step 1: Building the Botnet
To create a botnet, a hacker needs a way to take control of
thousands of devices — these could be computers, mobile phones, or IoT devices such
as webcams or smart refrigerators.
There are quite a few ways the hacker could find and take
control of these devices. For example, they might write a virus that propagates
and gradually takes over more and more computers. Or, they might find a
specific IoT device with a known vulnerability (for example, poor default login
security) and build a bot to scan the internet and hack as many of those devices
If you want to read more about how hackers do this, check
out our post on Hacking
IoT Devices: How to Create a Botnet of Refrigerators.
Step 2: Controlling the Botnet
As the hacker takes control of each device, they’ll do
something so it will obey any instructions the hacker sends to the device. (For
example, installing a small program on it.)
There are a few different approaches the hacker can use
(client-server model, P2P model based on digital certificates, etc.), but the
end result is the same — the hacker can issue a command and all the devices in
the botnet will do whatever the hacker instructed them to do.
Step 3: Executing the Attack
Once the hacker has thousands of devices at his beck and
call, he can execute the DDoS attack. There are a few different types of DDoS
attacks (more on that later), but the basic idea is the same: flood a web
server with more requests than it can handle.
The attacker will typically research the target website carefully
to identify a weakness to exploit, then craft a request that will target that
vulnerability. Finally, the attacker will instruct their zombie computers to
execute that request (repeatedly).
Here’s an example: Let’s say Bob’s botnet has 100,000
devices in it. He issues a command to the botnet to send an HTTP request to
example.com once per second. That’s 60 visits per minute times 100,000 devices.
That adds up to 360 million visits per hour, or 8.6 billion visits per day.
That’s far more than most web servers are designed to handle. If the attack was
planned well, the web server will be overloaded and any real people who try to
visit the site will get an error message. DDoS attack success!
DDoS the Lazy Way: Rent a Botnet!
If it sounds like a lot of work to build a botnet and
execute a DDoS attack, you’d be right. But (unfortunately) there’s an easier
way — lazy attackers can just go on the dark web and rent
a botnet for as little as $10 per hour! Cybercrime
is a booming industry, and services such as DDoS botnet rentals and phishing
as a service solutions are just a few of the options available for purchase.
Types of DDoS Attacks
Our simplified definition of what DDoS is left out one detail: there are many different types of DDoS attacks that attackers can use depending on what specific server resource they’re trying to overload. Since we’re trying to keep things simple, we’ll just briefly highlight the broad types of DDoS attacks commonly used.
As mentioned previously, DDoS attacks are designed to jam up a website, usually by overloading a specific aspect of the site. For example, an attack could target the following to overload them:
- Web server resources such as CPU or RAM
- Database servers
- Network bandwidth
- DNS servers
As Gregory Kelley, chief
technology officer at Vestige Digital
“DDoS attacks can be categorized as either volume based or application based. Volume based attacks will attempt to flood a website, server or internet connection with more traffic than it can handle. Application based attacks usually look to exploit a vulnerability or defect in a protocol to tie up a specific service, such as a website.”
The Motive Behind the Attack: Why Do Hackers DDoS?
“Some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”
Alfred Pennyworth, The Dark Knight
Sometimes, DDoS attacks have a direct goal in mind (such as
money). In other cases, people just want to cause trouble and feel powerful.
Gregory Kelley explains that the top reasons he sees are:
- Financial gain. The hacker may be seeking
to hold a company at ransom – demanding that they pay money to stop the attack.
- Diversion. Another reason is to distract
a company’s cyber defenses so that the hacker can try to infiltrate the company
in another fashion.
- Hacktivism. The hacker could be doing it
to protest actions on the part of a company or government (such as the
case of James Robinson).
Are DDoS Attacks Illegal?
Short answer: yes.
Slightly longer answer: The specific laws around DDoS vary depending
on where you’re located. Some countries have lax laws (or insufficient
enforcement), so DDoS attackers may operate out of those countries.
In the U.S., DDoS attacks are illegal under the Federal
Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. The punishment can be substantial, too — up to 10
years of prison and up to $500,000 in fines. In fact, a
man from Connecticut recently got a 10-year prison sentence for DDoS attacks
Identifying and prosecuting attackers is often complex,
since the attacks commonly span multiple countries. As Maria Sirbu from Voxility explains:
“DDoS attacks often involve tools from several countries: the target IP is located in one country, the attacker is located in another, the command and control servers are in a different country, and the bots used in DDoS attacks come from multiple places. For this reason, investigating attacks, blocking botnets and discovering attackers has become serious business.”
DDoS Mitigation: What You Can Do If You’re Attacked
As DDoS attacks are becoming
bigger and more common, the tools we have to fight back have gotten better,
too. Now even the smallest businesses can get good DDoS prevention solutions.
(Although most DDoS attacks still target larger companies.)
Here are a few tactics any website owner can implement to
protect their site:
- Contact your web host to find out what their
policies and protections are against DDoS.
- Contact your DNS provider to see if they protect
against DNS flood attacks.
- Use a content delivery network (CDN) with a web
application firewall (WAF) and DDoS protection built in. Essentially, the CDN
sits between the attacker and your web server, so it can dilute and/or block
the attack before it reaches your web server.
As always, leave any questions or thoughts in the comments!
*** This is a Security Bloggers Network syndicated blog from Hashed Out by The SSL Store™ authored by Adam Thompson. Read the original post at: https://www.thesslstore.com/blog/what-is-a-ddos-attack/